The Paris-Dakar rally is many things, from a throwback to transcontinental rallies of the early 1900s, to the single most grueling automotive competition on Earth, to a test bed for some of the greatest vehicles ever built.

It's where the Porsche 959 cemented its hall of fame credentials, and it's what the transmission in Ken Block's insane gymkhana Mustang was designed to conquer. The one thing the Paris-Dakar rally is not, however, is a rally from Paris to Dakar, ever since the organizers deemed western Africa too dangerous to hold a race.

The 2015 edition is a surreal test of endurance, skill, and willpower, so as it's unfolding, take a look back at the last 35 years of the most intense race in the world.

Volkswagen

When everything got started in 1979, no one had any idea it would achieve such renown, plus the vehicles were pretty basic—albeit hardcore—4x4s like Range Rovers, Land Cruisers, and this military-spec Volkswagen Iltis that went on to win the 1980 edition.

WikiMedia

Flash forward a few decades. While some of the competitors remain the same, it's a fairly safe bet that no one will ever compare this purpose built desert racing machine to a mass produced Volkswagen Tuareg.

BMW

The same can be said of bikes, which have seen an evolution from the days when a mostly stock air-cooled Beamer could win.

KTM

Today, if you're not riding on something equivalent to this KTM that's specifically built for crushing dunes, it would be in your best interest to just stay home.

Dakar

Even if you have the best vehicle, you still gotta have the best GPS equipment to navigate some of the world's most-bereft-of-landmarks terrain in a timely fashion. That helicopter you see isn't just taking photos, it's making sure race control knows where everyone is.

Dakar

Granted, some of the vehicles are kinda hard to miss.

Hino

Whoever first thought to take something with roughly the same shape and mass as a garbage truck and jump it over sand dunes, sometimes literally a thousand miles from the nearest real hospital, deserves a platinum Man Card with no annual fees (and no blackout dates).

Dakar

Just to give you a quick size comparison: the truck, to what technically qualifies as a "car" at Dakar today.

Porsche

There've been some amazing scenes over the years. For example, that's a 911 leading a Land Rover en route to victory.

And of course, there was that time the fastest supercar in the world beat a bunch of trucks over rocks and sand.

Porsche

Seriously. A full generation later and it's still hard to put into words why this picture is equal parts wrong and f*cking amazing.

Peugeot

Of course, where the 959 kicked open a mightily impressive door, others were quick to follow. The Peugeot 205 Turbo 16 is a legend in its own right, a product of the infamous Group B rally years. This is it en route to a pretty handy victory.

Peugeot

It was one of four consecutive wins for the French manufacturer. Their secret weapon? A combination of world champion rally drivers and a team boss by the name of Jean Todt,* who later orchestrated the dominant Ferrari F1 team during the Schumacher years.

*Fun fact: Todt has also been engaged to ex-Bond girl Michelle Yeoh for ages.

Citroen

As with any high-end motorsport, wins tend to come in streaks. After Peugeot's run faded, fellow French manufacturer Citroen took over and logged a streak of victories.

Mitsubishi

And then it was Mitsubishi's turn to dominate.

Mistubishi

It didn't relinquish its grip on the race until the mid 2000s, when the Volkswagen you saw towards the top sparked a new streak.

MINI

And now MINI is on a run of its own, with three straight heading into this year's edition.

Hino

Through it all, there has always been plenty of dust.

Scigacz

Seriously. Dust and dirt create a seemingly inescapable ubiquitous cloud of haze. It's even more prevalent than ads for European cigarettes almost no one in America has even heard of.

Land Rover

If you look carefully, you'll notice that the second Range Rover in this shot isn't following the first one. It's off to the side specifically to avoid that dust blanket. If the driver can't see past the distance he or she would need to stop, every one of those cows and trees is a potential life-ending collision.

Dakar

And make no mistake, people do die during the race. Not in the incident shown here, thankfully, but in more years than not, at least one person doesn't make it home alive.

Dakar

It's an unfortunate dark side to the sport, but if it were easy, what would be the point in doing it at all?

Schlesser

Naturally, some people prefer to do things in the hardest way possible and try to compete using a vehicle they built themselves, albeit with plenty of funding. Jean-Louis Schlesser (shown) actually managed to win in a vehicle of his own design.

Dakar

And then you get to the real reason people risk their lives to race across deserts and splash through streams.

Red Bull

It's just so damn pretty out in the middle of nowhere.

Dakar

There aren't too many places on earth you'll find scenery like this, let alone in the middle of a competition.

Dakar

Of course, that's not to say it's anything other than a blast when things are going smoothly. Even the helicopter pilot looks like he's having fun here.

Dakar

You would be forgiven for thinking the men and women who compete in the Dakar every year are crazy—because they certainly are.

Dakar

But at the end of the day, they're doing more cool stuff in one race than most people do in their entire lives. And when you really think about it, that isn't crazy in the slightest.


Aaron Miller is the Rides editor for Supercompressor, and can be found on Twitter. He would love to tag along some year to cover Dakar.

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